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One of my favorite education quotes is from Haim Ginott‘s Between Teacher and Child (1965) “I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.”

In reflecting on my own experiences as a student, I can think of lots of times when teachers made my life joyous. However, I can also remember three specific instances that weren’t so joyous. You would think the positives would make those three negatives fade and disappear, but they don’t. At odd moments, they pop in my head, and still cause a little pain, and in some small way, influence who I am.

In third grade, the art teacher told me I couldn’t draw. Her name and face have long been erased from my memory, but not that comment. I never took an art class past the required semesters in junior high. My drawings consist of stick people and geometric shapes.  However, I have found a creative outlet in baking. I wonder what she would have to say about my attempt at Van Gogh’s Starry Night?  

Sophomore year in high school the guidance counselor changed my schedule without talking to my parents or me. Her logic? There was no way I could ‘handle’ taking two math classes at the same time. I would fail miserably. Rather than backing down, I insisted she put the second math class back in and drop the study hall she insisted I needed.  Her comment made me angry, which made me more determined, and I excelled in both classes. I think I was buoyed by the fact that both math teachers had encouraged me to double up so that I could get in a 5th year of math. My interaction with the counselor was very limited for the rest of high school, and she never questioned my schedule after that.

The third instance occurred in college. I started out as a chemistry major even though I had always wanted to teach. My advisor, a chemistry professor, didn’t think very highly of the education courses I wanted to take my sophomore year.  I can remember his exact words, “If you’re going to be a teacher, you might as well drop out of school, get married and have kids. That’s all your life is going to be worth anyway.”  For a split second I questioned my choice. I left his office, went to the Registrar’s office, and asked for a new advisor.  I later learned he was going through a rather nasty divorce which explains his negative attitude about marriage and family, but doesn’t excuse him projecting his own views on my course schedule.

I don’t think any of them intended to crush my spirit. In their own ways, I’m sure they thought they were helping me. All three accomplished one thing, they left an indelible mark on my psyche. In questioning my abilities, they were really questioning who I was, and in doing so they changed me, ever so slightly. If they had known the impact of those words, I wonder if they would have chosen them more carefully?